Ping! Another email has arrived. Its Steve Weinman from Diver: Do I want to review a new PADI Shark Awareness course Oooh,I think, the Bahamas or maybe South Africa...
     Er, no, he tells me. Ellesmere Port, next to the Shell processing plant.
     To reach this enticing venue, I had to trek all of 16 miles to the Blue Planet Aquarium just outside Chester. I expected that most of the participants would be local too, though as it turned out, I was the only person to travel fewer than 200 miles to attend! But why
     PADI Master Scuba Diver Trainer Rob Bennett splits his time between the aquarium and running shark-related dive trips in South Africa. Being passionate about these creatures and wanting to help dispel the many myths surrounding them, Rob applied to PADI to recognise this course as a PADI speciality.
     This helped to explain the class make-up; not a single BSAC diver among them, and most wanted to make this course one of the five that would make up a PADI Master Scuba Diver qualification.
     After taking us on a whistlestop tour of the aquarium before it opened to the public, we were guided to the lecture room.
     Rob handed over to Rachel Ball, who would be conducting most of the days many lectures. Rachel has spent nearly 20 years at the aquarium researching shark and ray biology, and was clearly as passionate about the subject as Rob.
     Did you know that its possible to identify almost every species of shark simply by looking at their teeth, and that the shape of these can tell you exactly how they kill their prey
     This wasnt the only interesting shark particular we learned before lunch. Many species are able to store sperm for more than two years before getting pregnant and tiger sharks young eat their siblings before they get out of the womb, making them predators before they are even born!
     These were only a few of the topics covered in the morning session. I had no idea that there would be so much to absorb, yet I still had the impression we were just skimming the surface.
     After nearly three hours in the classroom, lunch provided a welcome opportunity to stretch legs and stop concentrating for a while. It was served at the main cafeteria, where we simply helped ourselves to whatever we wanted; this was included in the course fee.
     Directly after lunch, installed back in our little classroom, a real shock awaited us; watching a film of a shark wriggling while someone cuts its fins off before throwing it back into the sea alive was as disturbing as learning that we kill 100 million sharks a year! And that 99% of the worlds shark populations have already been killed by humans was a genuine eye-opener.
     This wasnt the usual PADI positive spin approach and I wondered how my fellow classmates would take this hard-hitting style.
     I was surprised to find that they all thought it good to be shocked; the film footage certainly rammed the message home.
     After this sobering section, we turned our attention to the sharks to be found in the aquarium and a pre-dive briefing. We were building towards the finale - the aquarium dive!
     There are five sand tiger, two lemon, three nurse and six small bamboo sharks in the tank, as well as five sting rays and two very shy wobbegong carpet sharks. Rob informed us that the sand tiger sharks were currently mating. This was making the males somewhat territorial and rather bold, which was likely to make for an even more interesting experience.
     Rob calmly pointed out that even though thousands of punters had now been in the aquarium, none of them had ever been bitten by a shark. There had been four recorded incidents but all involved staff working in the aquarium and none was really serious (Rob has the dubious distinction of having the best scar!). Good odds, then.
     We would not be diving in the tank. Instead, heavily over-weighted, we would walk in groups of four with two staff-spotters. Having been in the aquarium twice before, I knew what to expect; moon-walking is a fun experience.
     Kit washed and checked, we assembled on the edge of the tank, ready to walk down the rough concrete steps to the aquarium floor 3m below. Its a very odd feeling, sitting on the edge and watching shark fins going past, before climbing in! We were even lucky enough to have a 2m moray free-swimming past on the surface before we headed down.
     Settled on the bottom, we waited until the group had assembled before heading off on our slow-motion walk around the aquarium, stopping periodically to let a sand tiger cruise inches over our heads, or to sift through the sand for one of the many discarded teeth.
     Its worth remembering that, as well as the sharks, there are well over 60 species of fish in this tank. The hogfish adore having the coarse sand poured gently over them; its like tickling a dogs stomach!
     Every now and then you experience what feels like a tiny electric shot as one of the porkfish tries to clean your suit of potential tasty morsels.
     The first time I went into the aquarium was in a shortie and I had my leg hairs plucked for me; encased in a 5mm semi-dry, I was taking no chances on this occasion!
     Thirty minutes later, we climbed back up the steps. The aquarium dive/walk was a great way to end the day and, despite a few nervous individuals, everyone had enjoyed the unique experience. When I asked them later, all felt the day was well worth the £175 price tag.

With five to six hours of the day spent in the classroom and only 30 minutes spent under water in the aquarium, this is definitely an academic course with a bit of diving rather than the other way around. If participants come along thinking of it in those terms, they wont be disappointed.
     I felt that the shark information had been pitched at exactly the right level; it wasnt too simplistic and it wasnt too heavy on the science.
     There was no disputing the quality of information available or the expertise of Rachel and Rob, who were both clearly passionate about what they do and exceptionally knowledgeable on the subject. In fact the only thing I really would like to see tweaked is the support material.
     Because of the quantity and value of the facts delivered, it was impossible to memorise it all or take down enough notes. The hand-outs used were fine as far as they went, but the information could easily justify more weighty materials.
     To be fair, this was only the second time this course had been delivered and as such it was excellent. I think future participants can probably look forward to this minor detail being rectified.
     Another thing that would be very welcome, even at an extra cost, would be a picture card with the aquariums 65 species on it, so that divers and spectators alike could identify what they are looking at (Im amazed that the shop didnt sell these as a matter of course.)
     Did I think it was worth the money When discussed among friends, they all exclaimed: £175! Id do it if it was £30.
     But in reality, I had the time of two experts in their field for a whole day, including all refreshments and lunch, so Id have to say yes.
     If we dont act quickly, as other articles in this issue of Diver make clear, this may soon be the only way we will get to see sharks at all.

  • The PADI Shark Diver Awareness course at the Blue Planet Aquarium costs £175 and includes extensive lectures, a 30 minute moon-walk in the aquarium, lunch and refreshments. Maximum group size is 12 people. Students receive PADI Shark Awareness non-diving certification. To book a course, contact Steve Corbett on 0151 357 8805

  • Sand
    Sand tiger sharks in the Blue Planet Aquarium tank, their images reflected in the visitor observation tunnel below them. Train to be a PADI Closed Water Walker here!
    After you - its time to get among the sharks at last
    most of the PADI Shark Awareness course is spent in the classroom
    Chris Boardman and fellow-trainees prepare for their